Documentary Explores Kitty Genovese's Notorious 1964 Murder: Did 38 People Really Watch and Do Nothing?
There's more to the story than the accepted narrative, Kitty Genovese's brother learns
Bill Genovese knows the story that took hold about his sister Kitty, whose early-morning stabbing murder on a New York City street in 1964 became a cultural touchstone with a shocking allegation: that 38 people in nearby apartments witnessed her stabbing and heard her anguished screams over a 30-minute period, but did nothing as her killer returned to stab her again and again.
But Bill also knows the story isn’t true.
“The ’38 witnesses’ story, I had always been somewhat suspect of, maybe naively, because I thought how could that be?” he tells PEOPLE.
As a child who grew up in the Connecticut suburbs, “the thought of neighbors not responding to a neighbor in a horrible situation would have been just incredible.”
The macabre legend — initially locked in place by media accounts, and then in books and psychological and sociological studies that defined “the bystander effect” — is dismantled in The Witness, director James Solomon’s documentary that follows Bill’s 10-year journey for the truth, while illuminating the life of his beloved big sister. It airs Monday, Jan. 23 on the PBS series Independent Lens (10 p.m. ET).
In an exclusive clip, Bill joins prosecutor Charles Skoller to revisit the Queens street on which his sister was attacked at 3:20 a.m. on March 13, 1964, on her way home from work as a bar manager. The killer, Winston Moseley, died in prison last April. “You sure you want to do this? This has to be very difficult for you,” Skoller asks.
“Absolutely want to do it,” Bill replies.
Bill was 16 when Kitty was murdered, and the incident shaped his life. Twelve years younger than Kitty, who was 28, Bill came of age during the Vietnam War and watched as his peers fled the draft. Bill, however, refused to stand idly by while others fought and died. He enlisted in the Army, and lost both his legs in combat.
He was embraced by others for the way in which he dealt with loss. But when The New York Times, on the 50th anniversary of Kitty’s death, questioned its flawed initial reporting of the attack, Bill began his own inquiry. He and Solomon, a screenwriter, had earlier met to discuss a discarded fictional version, and Solomon asked if he could follow along on Bill’s journey.
“Kitty in many respects has been this blank screen upon which many generations have projected themselves, this ‘silent victim,'” Solomon tells PEOPLE. “It’s a story that has perpetuated itself again and again.”
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Portrayals of the incident as more a window into social behavior than a crime endure. Chesley Sullenberger, the former US Airways pilot celebrated as a hero for saving 155 lives by landing a disabled plane on the Hudson River, said the Kitty Genovese story had a large impact on his youth growing up in Texas. Bill himself heard it referenced in a business law course he took in grad school, although he said nothing at the time about his connection to it. Pop culture has invoked or echoed Kitty’s murder over more than five decades on TV shows from Perry Mason to Law & Order to an episode last year of HBO’s Girls.
But Bill’s personal exploration in the documentary goes deeper. “It really is a sibling love story — a brother reclaiming his life from her infamous death,” says Solomon.
“I just really loved the hell out of Kitty,” says Bill. “We would laugh a lot together. Slowly but surely in my mind, it became like, man, we have to tell people what she was like. She was pretty extraordinary.”
“For lack of a better term,” he says, “she was a real pistol.”
Bill, 69, a married father and grandfather in Washington, Connecticut, is a retired administrator of mental health and education organizations. He recalls that among his parents and siblings, talk of Kitty’s loss was largely buried with her. “In our family we basically stayed away from all publicity, all inquiries, because my mom was so affected by this,” he says. “We were always about trying to shield information coming in to her.”
Kitty’s mother had a stroke at age 53 the year after Kitty’s murder, and died in 1992. (Their father died in 1969.) Bill says her passing freed him to dig into the past. “I felt like I had to know everything I could know,” he says.
He already had belatedly learned that Kitty, who briefly married at 19 and divorced, was in a lesbian relationship at the time of her death. And he knew of the intellectual passions, wit and devotion that helped form his bond with her. He warmly recalls the red Fiat she drove up from New York City every other weekend or so to the family’s home in New Canaan, Connecticut, which she let Bill drive when he was just 15. Her former neighbors, friends and co-workers fill in the gaps.
One of the most surprising discoveries to Bill was learning that a neighbor of Kitty’s rushed to her side in her final moments, cradling Kitty while she bled profusely on the floor of a street-level vestibule of her apartment building. The account by the neighbor — Sophia Farrar — appeared in a day-after media report, and Farrar repeated it months later at the trial that Kitty’s immediate family members skipped.
But it vanished immediately from the narrative.
“To think that for nearly a half-century Kitty’s own family didn’t know that Kitty died in the arms of a friend is unconscionable,” says Solomon.
Bill says it’s his “biggest regret” that he didn’t encounter and share that revelation sooner. “I wish my parents knew that,” he says. “I would have hoped it would have been a comfort for them.”
His reconsideration of Kitty’s murder in the film includes a harrowing scene in which an actress recreates Kitty’s piercing screams on the same street Kitty was killed. Ultimately, Bill learns that the narrative that 38 people did nothing is not true. Still, open questions remain for him.
While he concludes that some who heard or saw were paralyzed by fear, and some deliberately looked away, he does not lay blame. One of the former residents tells of neighbors at the time who were tattooed with numbers from Nazi concentration camps and were perhaps fearful of interacting with police. More than one tells him they did call police only to be told that police had the information already, although only one call to police was logged. “Whether those people called or not is a question mark,” he says.
Bill notes, too, that ambulance crews of the day were allowed only to transport, and not to treat victims at the scene. “There’s so many shocking things about it,” he says of Kitty’s murder, “but you have to balance it with what was going on in 1964.”
“I think he’s looking for the ultimate inner peace,” Bill’s wife, Dale, says in the film. “The choices that he made in his life were all related to the fact that no one helped his sister, and if he knows the truth, that’s a peacefulness.”
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Says Solomon: “It’s through the living that we experience the person who has been lost. And I think we wonder and root for Bill’s next day. Sadly, tragically, Kitty doesn’t have another day. Bill does. And we feel his loss and experience his healing.”
Bill says, “In my mind it was, what’s the value of doing his documentary if it isn’t to have some sort of message that transcends the specific incidence of Kitty’s murder?”
“I’ve come to realize that the whole story of Kitty’s death will never be known, but maybe that’s why the story continues to fascinate people,” he says. “And if nothing else, it got us to think about what we owe each other.”
The Witness airs Monday, Jan. 23 on the PBS series Independent Lens (10 p.m. ET).